We're a family of 4 (ma, pa, 6 &10 year old boys) and will be spending 6 days in Scotland this summer. We will be arriving Scotland after 2 weeks of fairly heavy duty windshield time in Ireland and are toying with the idea of a car-less experience in Scotland. We're not attached to seeing anything in particular and would be happy (we think) letting the rail system dictate our trip. Is this a mis-guided romantic notion or is it doable? And, if you do think it might work, where would you let the rails take you?
I've not done it so I can't say authoritatively that it would work but I'm sure, given that you're 'not attached to seeing anything in particular' it's certainly doable. I have no idea what the train schedules are like in Scotland and that could be an issue if some trains are quite infrequent. I would start by doing some research about where the trains go, how frequent they run, how well they synch one route to another, etc. And then pick some possible destinations and research them and/or post more questions here about those that look interesting. Here is one place to start (it's a great resource no matter how you plan to do the trip - train or rental car): https://www.visitscotland.com/travel/getting-around-scotland/train/. I used this website a lot before I went to Scotland many years ago and it was very helpful.
We travelled to Inverness and then on to Skye by train from Edinburgh. I would highly recommend this journey. There are plenty of places to hop off along the way and explore. We organised a day tour of Skye by bus. What a magical, beautiful place. I'm sure you will get more specific help and advice from one of our knowledgeable UK forumers.
It is doable, however you would need to take into consideration that it would involve a large amount of doubling back on yourselves, or taking the bus a lot.
Fort William to Inverness is quite a trek by train, Fort William to Oban is not an easy journey and they are virtually next door to each other.
What sort of places would you want to see?
As MC says it really depends on what you want to see. And how much time you're willing to spend on trains and buses. Here's a great map that shows where the railways go. Note the tricky bit--Mallaig is not connected to Kyle of Lochalsh--you can take the ferry to Skye and then a bus over to Kyle. I would caution you though if you are thinking of traveling around Skye on public transit it can be challenging. If I were traveling with kids, I would pop for taxis. It's a much bigger island than you think!
You say that you have 6 days -- does that include the day you arrive and the day you depart? If so, you may really only have 4 days worth of sightseeing days. Even with 6 full days, you don't have a lot of time. You will need to pick and choose.
Your kids may enjoy travel by train or bus, if that is something you don't do at home. But, I would guess, that nice scenery won't be interesting for very long. The downside with public transportation is that their schedule may not fit yours.
I would probably go with a rental car, but design your itinerary so that you don't drive much. We spent about a week in the Borders/Northumerland and really enjoyed our time there. We did not do a lot of driving. You could choose a different area but resist the temptation to "see it all" because you can't "see it all" in such a short time.
First of all, thank you to all of you who took the time to respond. Your advice is so valuable. Second, you all offer much food for thought, for which we are also grateful. Re: the question about actual days, we'll be arriving quite early in the morning on Day 1 (7:30 am). Day 6 is the last full day, with departure at 8 am on Day 7. The pull, of course, is to see All The Things, but that's simply not possible. Also, best guess is that the kids will be 98% over the castle and cathedral scene by the time we arrive on Scotish soil. The link re connections is great, and it's good to know that it's technically doable, if maybe not desirable. If you all still have any thoughts to share, what's your top scene in a day's train trip from Edinburgh? Dundee?
Your boys might not be castled out when they see our castles.
Ha! Well played, MC. Well played.